Driving to Distraction

VIRGINIA: The Caves of the Shenandoah Valley

Apr 24, 2001
Outside Magazine

Our four-year-old daughter Hayley started talking about caves not long after she started talking. She'd study pictures, ask questions, and create her own virtual cave experience beneath the comforter. Her fascination rekindled my own childhood interest in spelunking, and I promised to show her the real thing.

The Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia is pocked with caves and campgrounds, so that's where we headed. Bounded by the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, Interstate 81 runs up the valley, paralleling the Shenandoah River. These are scenic foothills, largely rural, with much of the land under preservation. The defining characteristic is "karst topography," which is a fancy term for cave country. Caves are produced when underground springs dissolve limestone bedrock over millions of years, leaving behind subterranean chasms. Eight commercial caves line a 150-mile stretch along I-81 between Salem and Front Royal, Virginia.
First we test the waters with a weekend trip to Luray Caverns, the most famous cave in the East. Hayley adores the experience, especially listening to melodies played on the "stalacpipe," a natural underground marimba. Next we try Endless Caverns, which is rawer and less tourist-inundated. She is captivated by such spectacles as Diamond Lake and Fairyland, but is a little overwhelmed by the strangeness of the environment. When the guide asks if there are any questions, Hayley raises her hand. "Do you know the way out of here?"

On our next foray, we decide to take on four caves in a weekend. Our great Virginia cave crawl begins with the Caverns at Natural Bridge, where the main lure is the 215-foot rock bridge that Thomas Jefferson proclaimed "the most sublime of Nature's Works." But we're here for the caverns, the deepest commercial cave on the East Coast (347 feet), which is still being carved by moving water and is home to bats, salamanders, millipedes, crickets, and a strange species of beetle.

On the way in, Hayley registers uncertainty ("I wanna go back, I don't like caves") but does a 180 upon our exit ("I love caves," she exults). In between, she ogles eight-million-year-old flowstone, peers into depthless solution holes, and happily receives a "cave kiss": a drip of water from overhead. But she whimpers when we're plunged into "total cave darkness," that moment on every cave tour when the lights are extinguished. It is a blackness so profound that if you were to stay there for two weeks you'd be temporarily blinded when reintroduced to light.

En route to Shenandoah Caverns, we take a blue highway instead of the interstate, and Hayley gazes out at the Virginia countryside: fields of hay in circular bales, farm ponds, rolling hills and distant mountains, and lots of spotted cows.

Shenandoah Caverns is another big hit. Not only does it feature stunning geology—glistening cataracts of flowstone, sparkling curtains of crystalline calcite, and formations that suggest fried bacon and Darth Vader—but Hayley is given a lucky penny by the guide and told that as long as she holds fast to it, nothing will scare her. From this moment on, she is the very picture of bravery. At a mirror-smooth pool called the Wishing Well, Hayley is given another penny, which she tosses in. "I wished for a cow," she confides. Near the end of the tour, she makes her customary inquiry—"Do you know the way out of here?"—and then adds, "Just teasing!"

Crystal Caverns, our next stop, is the smallest Virginia show cave and the least flashy in terms of lighting and effects. It's appealing because it's so intimate and natural. To Hayley's delight we are each given a flashlight. In pre-Colonial times the cave was used by Native Americans who quarried arrowheads from a vein of hard, black limestone in a chamber they regarded as sacred. Rumors abound of auras and spirits, and PBS has been out to investigate. "If you believe the psychics, there is some hot stuff going on in here," says the guide.

As we traipse through, our guide points out likenesses suggested by the daunting formations: a giant's coffin, a reposing alligator, the dome of the U.S. Capitol ("It looks like vanilla ice cream!" shouts Hayley). Crystal Caverns is renowned for its honeycombed crystalline rimstone and diamondlike calcite crystals. Certain passages are tight and the cave is raw, but Hayley is elated. "I like it more here than all the caves," she announces, waving her flashlight. "I want to go here every day."

Now a confirmed cavehound, Hayley enters Skyline Caverns—her fourth of the weekend—as if it were a McDonald's Playland. She charges around the labyrinthine curves and passageways and even welcomes total cave darkness without shrieking. She also takes a shine to the 16-year-old tour guide, literally running circles around him in the Cathedral Room.

Lacy calcite formations called anthodites are unique to Skyline Caverns. They hang from the ceiling like suspended snowflakes. Streams flow through, one of them home to a sightless cave beetle. With its high-ceilinged chambers and narrow passages, the cave resembles an underground Grand Canyon. Hayley trots through the catacombs like a kid riding a broomstick pony, completely comfortable with the notion that she is 260 feet underground.

A spelunker is born.

Along the I-81 corridor in western Virginia, you can realistically tour two caves a day with kids in tow. Each tour lasts roughly 60--90 minutes. Here's an itinerary for a three-day, two-night trek that hits every cave and campground that we did. It moves from south to north, from Natural Bridge to Front Royal, a distance of 125 miles.

DAY ONE starts with a tour of the Caverns at Natural Bridge (Exit 175; 800-533-1410; www.naturalbridgeva.com). Then drive 90 miles north to Luray Caverns (Exit 264; 540-743-6551; www.luraycaverns.com). Spend the night on a mountain in nearby Shenandoah National Park (for information, call the park office at 540-999-3500) at Matthew's Arm or Big Meadows campground; both are located off the scenic Skyline Drive, which is just ten miles eastof Luray via U.S. 211.

ON THE SECOND DAY, take in Endless Caverns (Exit 257; 540-896-2283; www.endlesscavern.com) and then proceed to Shenandoah Caverns (Exit 269; 540-477-3115; www.shenandoahcaverns.com). Camp that night on the banks of the Shenandoah River at Shenandoah River State Park (540-622-6840; www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/andygues.htm), accessible from I-81 by exiting onto I-66 (Exit 300) and then taking U.S. 340 (Exit 6) south to Bentonville.

AFTER BREAKING CAMP ON THE THIRD DAY, head five miles north on U.S. 340 to Skyline Caverns (Exit 13; 540-635-4545; www.skylinecaverns.com). Then finish off your spelunking expedition at Crystal Caverns (Exit 298; 540-465-5884).

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